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Going global: unexpected obstacles for French SMEs

Nathalie Belhoste est docteur en science politique et enseignant-chercheur à Grenoble Ecole de Management au sein du département Homme, Organisations et Société
Published on
26 February 2019

Recent research highlights new factors that create obstacles for French SMEs looking to expand abroad. The publication underlines that consultants for exporting or international business development as well as project managers in charge of supporting international growth for SMEs can sometimes have a negative impact on an entrepreneur's desire to go global. These “global managers” often share a specific vision of international development which can discourage certain SMEs from pursuing their expansion.

The publication was co-authored by Nathalie Belhoste, a professor and researcher at Grenoble Ecole de Management, and François Goxe, a professor and researcher at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin en Yvelines. It was published in 2018 in The European Management Review (Be global or be gone: Global mindset as a source of division in an international business community).

Can you explain the basis for your joint research work?

Our research focused on the international expansion of French SMEs in China, which is François Goxe’s area of expertise. The initial goal was to highlight factors that contribute to the failure of various French entrepreneurs to expand internationally. We carried out 35 interviews with a variety of actors (small entrepreneurs, representatives from major French corporations, export consultants, advisors at Business France Export…). However, the results of our research underlined a specific issue…

What changed upon analyzing your research results?

Our research highlighted factors that block international development for SMEs and small entrepreneurs, and in particular, discriminating factors caused by interactions with a “global elite”. Smaller French companies generally have little international experience when they begin the process of going global. And they have to interact with a global elite that is very used to the international scene. Some of these global actors do more to block an SME’s expansion than to facilitate it. As a result, our study demonstrated that the meetings SMEs have with this global elite can be a determining factor for their international development. And sometimes, a negative one that can deter international expansion.

Could you explain the term “global elite”?

This elite refers to consultants and other actors that can offer advice and support for the exporting and international development of SMEs in particular. These players often graduate from similar business schools with similar profiles. While this can be positive, it also works against the goal of supporting international development. Why? These global managers can have a narrow, exclusionary vision of international development that is based on specific standards. For example, the vision of international actors as an elite can exclude other potential actors, in particular newcomers. Standards such as being fluent in English, having an international education or a degree from specific business schools can negatively impact newcomers who do not meet these “prerequisites” for international expansion. 

Can you explain the idea of an “exclusionary vision”?

Through shared codes, foreign language habits, and other characteristics, there is a form of domination by one group over another (see works by Pierre Bourdieu). This global culture was self-constructed through elite networks that produce “global managers” with a “global mindset” (or shared mindset). Such a vision can lead to a condescending view of newcomers who do not know the rules and share the same codes. And this global elite is generally in charge of advising and guiding newcomers. In negative cases, an interaction by a newcomer with this elite can lead to a feeling of disdain or not being legitimate, thus leading these potential international actors to give up their plans for expansion.

What warnings can be drawn from this study?

We have to raise awareness about this issue and think about these profiles, in particular if they are offering advice and support for export activities. This global elite has a way of thinking and operating. As a business school that trains some of this elite, it is our responsibility to consider the situation. We underline the value of “global managers” for many legitimate and worthwhile reasons, but we also have to be aware of the limitations.

We have to train students to develop their awareness of social groups and whether or not they may have a specific way of thinking. At GEM, we try to increase the understanding of our students on these questions thanks to classes in subjects such as geopolitics and economic peace, which encourage them to develop their critical thinking abilities. These types of classes enable them to develop greater awareness about their environment all the while understanding its complexity. 


The 11th Geopolitics Festival organized by Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) will focus on the the theme: “The European Union(s)?

Jean-Marc Huissoud, Head of the Festival and a professor at GEM explains: “Numerous events over the past couple of years have forced us to consider the future of the EU. The Brexit, changes to the PAC, increasing populism, and crises in Italy and Catalan have all highlighted important questions about the solidity of this union. Is the entire EU heading toward disintegration? What Europe can we expect in the future? A single EU or a Europe of many Unions?”

Program Details:

Notable participants: Bertrand Badie, Michel Barnier, Pascal Boniface Thierry Chopin, Michel Foucher, Isabelle Jegouzo, Nathalie Loiseau, Tommy McKearney, Marc-Olivier Strauss Kahn, Jean-Pierre Sueur.

New events during the festival:

An open conference will be led by the youtuber Mister Geopolitix. The conference will discuss how to popularize geopolitics. Prep school classes will also be able to take part in a simulated EU parliament session.

As always, more than 100 conferences, roundtables and debates will take place as well as live radio shows, serious games, an escape game, a concert, a theatrical presentation, and an exhibit of maps and street art.

The 10th edition set a new record for festival participation with 19,345 visitors, including 11,900 on-site participants (50% more than the previous edition). The 10th edition was held from March 14 to 17, 2018 on the theme “The 21st century: an American century?”. Videos of the 10th edition are available at youtube.

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